Consulting is a great profession, in large part because, beyond the value we provide our clients, each engagement leaves me and my firm with tremendous learning and new expertise. Are there any ethical issues with using this knowledge?
A great question, mostly because it is a complicated one. First, what do you mean by "knowledge"? Most consulting engagements are "work for hire," meaning that any work products you create are the property of the client who paid for them. It may be that you can work out a nonexclusive rights agreement for use of your work with the client, but don't assume that because you created it (even if based on other work you already have done) that it belongs to you and you can do with it as you please. Especially if you are talking about a tangible product or a discrete methodology, work this out explicitly with your client.
Second, skills that you acquire and the experience you gain during an engagement do belong to you. This gradual accumulation of skills and perspective are a significant part of the value you bring to a client. After all, the breadth of what you have learned from all your past clients is what your current client is paying you to apply to their issues.
Finally, if it isn't spelled out in your consulting agreement, be aware that any proprietary data, technologies, market information, employee lists or other client confidential property that your client provides you does not belong to you and you may not use or disclose it outside the engagement. Sometimes you have used such client property for months (or years) and can forget that it really is not yours. Consultants can get into trouble if they are not paying attention to what is theirs and what is the client's.Tip:
It is worth a discussion, certainly after the conclusion of your work but preferably before you start, about rights in data, methodologies and work products. You really don't want to learn of conflicts in rights through either a letter from your client's attorney or from a rumor that your firm purloins client property.© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA